TARGET: Speaking

Why not pay it forward?

#ELTpayitforward motivates teachers to share ideas today, so they can find amazing ones tomorrow. With this hash tag teachers can share their knowledge on teaching different topics related to grammar, vocabulary, and language skills.

This week’s topic for ELT Pay It Forward was the Speaking.

Speaking is one of the skills many students struggle with, as we well know from phrases like: “I understand it, but I can’t speak it.” Before diving into some ideas on how to teach speaking in your English language classroom, first I wanted to clarify what we are actually teaching when we teach this skill. Speaking, like all of the other skills, have a set of sub-skills that can be taught and reinforced to help students improve their overall skill. In this case I’ll be focusing on: fluency, accuracy with words and pronunciation, discourse markers, appropriacy, and range of vocabulary and grammar.

Just so we’re all on the same page, let’s define the set of sub-skills I’ll be referring to in today’s activities. These definitions are extracted from Ken Lackman’s book called Teaching Speaking Sub-skills: Activities for Improving Speaking. 

  • fluency: Activities which require students to focus on meaning in communication without immediate concern for accuracy (errors can be corrected afterwards).
  • accuracy with words and pronunciation: Students need to be able to use and pronounce words and structures correctly in order to be understood. Controlled practice activities are the most common way of working on spoken accuracy.
  • discourse markers: When speakers are required to take a particularly long turn, for example when giving a presentation, they use specific words and
    phrases to help the listener recognize how their talk has been organized. Activities can be used which teach discourse makers and then require students to use them appropriately.
  • appropriacy: Activities which stress that the purpose of talking determines what language is appropriate. Students are required to make choices about grammar and vocabulary and also other aspects of communication like intonation and length of turn. For example, “What’s the damage?” is inappropriate in a four-star restaurant.
  • range of vocabulary and grammar: Students need to know a range of words and grammar and have the ability to choose from that bank the most appropriate words and structures for a specific task or topic. They are taught or made aware of words or structures appropriate for specific tasks or contexts and then are required to use them appropriately.
Lackman, K. (2010). Teaching Speaking Sub-skills: Activities for Improving Speaking[PDF]. Ken Lackman & Associates Educational Consultants.

Now, here are some ideas to practice speaking in the classroom.

One-sided conversation

Depending on how tech savvy you are, you can do this in a couple of ways. (1) You could record two sides of a conversation and a second recording where you only record one side of the conversation, while leaving the space for the other  lines. It’s important to be sure to leave the space you would take when speaking fluently and at a natural pace. (2) Find and download a recording of a dialogue and edit the audio to remove the other side of the conversation without editing the time that is left in between each line. At the end of either process you should have two audios. One with both sides of the dialogue, and another one with only one side. Play the first one to your students, and have them follow along with the printed dialogue. Then after they’ve heard it once or twice, have them say the lines along to the part that will later disappear. Then play the second audio, and have them as a group try to say the lines with the correct pace. Have them practice a few times and then have individual students give it a try. The individual practice will depend on your students and how shy or willing they are to try this on their own. If they are not keen on doing it in front of everyone, just do smaller groups and have one person at a time give it a go. They have lots of fun, and really manage to improve their fluency with this exercise.

Guided Dictations

This activity is great for lower levels because it tends to be quite flexible and allow students to work at their own pace. First take a short text and read it once or twice to your students, without giving them the printed text. Now, hand out the short text to about 4 or 5 students and read the text to everyone one last time. The students with the text, should make notes of pronunciation features, and the students without the text should take notes on what they understand from the text. Once they’ve heard you read it one last time, it’s now their turn.

  1. The students will make 4 or 5 groups, one for each person who has the text printed off.
  2. The student with the text will read the text (not dictate) to the group and the other students must take notes trying to recreate the text as best as possible. They can talk among themselves and try to recreate the text as a group. The reader can only read at a natural pace, without stopping or dictating to the group.
  3. The reader can repeat up to 3 times. When he or she has read the text the third time, they cannot read it anymore, but they can answer questions about the text.
  4. When the group feels it’s close to the original they can hand it in to the reader who will check the text and make any corrections with the group.
  5. Once the activity is done, I will ask students questions so they can engage in conversation, be it in small groups or pairs, to reinforce and expand the vocabulary and content of the reading.

As an extended activity you could have a series of related texts, which could be done in a few classes. You can also have students create their own Quizlet study set. Check out my live session where I walk you through how to use Quizlet.

Keep the conversation going

Have students recognize discourse markers in real-world videos. I usually do this by creating groups of 5 or 6. In each group, I give the students a discourse marker to look up. They will search for their word on  Youglish, which is a website that filters YouTube videos that contain the word or phrase that you searched for. Your students have to look through the videos and choose at least 5 expressions where they can use their discourse marker. They should write down the sentence and bring their example to class. They will then present their 5 examples to their group in the following way:

  1. They will do 5 rounds, where each student will share their examples sentences, one per round.
  2. Then the teacher gives a topic to the class, where the group has to hold a conversation, while taking turns. Each student must use their discourse marker at least once.
  3. When a student uses their discourse marker the rest of the students have to either raise their hand, or you can choose any other symbol to indicate they recognized it.
  4. Once everyone has used their discourse marker, you can give them a second topic. This time they must use a partner’s discourse marker, but cannot repeat. Once a student has used a discourse marker, it can’t be used again. They should continue the conversation until all of them have been used.

Say what?

This is a fun way to get students to recognize the appropriate way to engage in conversation depending on the context and people involved. First of all, you should prepare small flashcards that contain the following information: Place / Context / Role / Tone. I usually set up my class in small groups of 4 to 5 students and make sets of cards for each group. On all of the students’ flashcards it will say the correct tone of the speaker, except for one. Include some expressions on the card, if you feel your students need the extra help.

Now, students must create a dialogue where they take on their roles and the tone assigned to them. Then they will present the dialogue to the whole group and they must decide who is using the correct tone or not. Then they must switch dialogues with another pair and make the necessary corrections so it has the correct tone. When they are finished they can record the audio on their phones and share via WhatsApp with the rest of the class with the corrections. Once this has been done, in class you can have a bag with the different situations given during the exercise, and organize them in small groups, make pairs and act out for their group that situation using the correct tone and without any aids like script, expressions list, etc.


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